Who has insights? The who, where, and when of the Eureka moment

Linda Ovington

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Background: Research investigating insight problem solving consists predominantly of experimental studies exploring the neurological and cognitive mechanisms. A limited number of studies have focused on individual differences. Of the few studies that have been conducted, most centre on neurological associates and cognitive ability/style. A tacit assumption is that all people experience insight, meaning some studies are afflicted with methodological issues; for example, that “insight problems” are solved only with an insight. Additionally, few studies have investigated insight using qualitative methods.
Aims: The overall goal of this thesis was to investigate individual differences in insight problem solving. Using a mixed-methods approach, the first study aimed to investigate the subjective meaning, and contexts in which insights occur. The second study aimed to construct a brief scale which measures insight as a disposition (Dispositional Insight Scale). The third study aimed to uncover traits that may predict insight, including positive affect, flow, and mindfulness. The fourth study aimed to compare the personality traits of insightful people and analytical people, and to confirm whether those who are highly insightful have a higher predisposition to arousability than those lower in insightfulness.
Method: A sample of 1,114 participants completed an online self-report questionnaire. The study included demographic questions, and open-ended questions regarding where and when insights occur, the personal meaning of their insights, and an additional opportunity to report other thoughts. The questionnaire also included closed-ended questions on insight, rated on a Likert scale, and scales assessing cognitive style, and the dispositions: affect, flow, mindfulness, the five-factor personality scale, and predisposition to arousability.
Results: Eighty per cent of participants reported having insights, with the highest percentage falling in the female, younger, highly educated demographic categories. Qualitative results showed most have insights at night, in the shower, and at work. Perceptions of insights centre on the belief that they come from the subconscious, and when not thinking about the problem. This perception converges on the research definition—insight is sudden (processing outside conscious awareness), and often arrives after an incubation period. It was also reported that insights improve with age, that the details (of the problem) are needed first, and that they are unexpected. The results from the second study revealed a five-item scale measuring dispositional insight with acceptable reliability. The third study found that dispositional flow and trait mindfulness (not positive affect) predicted insight, but only marginally. The fourth study found that openness was the strongest predictor of insight, and that conscientiousness was the strongest predictor of analysis. This study also found that highly insightful people reported a higher level of general arousability compared to those low on insightfulness; the effect size was moderate.
Implications for theory: The findings from this thesis suggest that insight is not only a continuous trait but also dichotomous, that is, while most people have insights, some people do not. From this research, a self-report scale was developed in order to measure propensity towards experiencing insights; this tool will be of use to other insight researchers. Researchers have raised anecdotal reports of insights occurring at/during the night, and in the shower. The findings from this thesis lend empirical support to these anecdotes. This is also the first study to report gender differences, with more females reportedly experiencing insights than males. Finally, there were a number of traits shown to positively predict insightful people that have not been studied previously: mindfulness, propensity to flow experiences, openness to new experiences, and a tendency towards high arousal.
Conclusions: As many as one-fifth of the population may not experience—or may not be aware of—their insights. For those who do experience insights, these occur at times when they are relaxed, or in situations where their mind may wander. Increasing flow and mindfulness could marginally improve insight experiences, and to a greater degree than positive affect. While openness is the strongest predictor of insightfulness, conscientiousness strongly predicts a more analytical strategist. Future studies should be aware that some participants may not be capable of experiencing insight, and thus should either control for these people, or study them directly.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Saliba, Anthony, Principal Supervisor
  • Moran, Carmen, Co-Supervisor
  • Goldring, Jeremy, Co-Supervisor
Award date01 Dec 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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